“This feels tight here…” (As the individual points to a part of their body when they move).

“There is tightness here when I do this…” (As the individual demonstrates a movement that creates the tightness)

“My muscles are too tight… (As the client scrunches up their face with the effort of trying to overcome the tightness)

Exercise professionals, therapists of any number of disciplines, and physicians hear these phrases frequently from their clients and patients. It’s a verbal report that transcends the ages.  So, what does it mean?

What is the client/patient trying to say about the sensation in their body?

This verbal report of tightness is describing a subjective sensation – not a measured property.

Clearly, if they choose to report it, they are interpreting the sensation of tightness as something that is wrong with their body. Especially if it is a sensation they have not felt before.

What are they hoping the trainer, therapist, or doctor will do about it?

What does the client/patient think is happening in their body when they have a sensation and choose the word “tight” to describe it?

The definition of the adjective form of the word “tight” from dictionary.com is:

Fixed, fastened, or closed firmly; hard to move, undo, or open; (2) (of a rope, fabric, or surface) stretched so as to leave no slack; not loose.

(I would add that tightness refers to the inability for a material to lengthen when put under a strain – which can often be quite beneficial. E.g. a rope that is lowering a piano from a third story window, or the wire safety cable on an amusement ride that is swinging you around at 40 miles an hour.)

Is this what the practitioner thinks… that some material of their client’s body is fixated, fastened, already stretched so as to leave no slack (when it should have more slack), or just “not loose”?

The choice to use this word “tightness” frames the conclusion that there is some problem with the materials, or fabric, of the body. They think that maybe the fabric is stuck together, or that some material has lost its elasticity and doesn’t lengthen like it should.

How does the trainer, therapist, or doctor interpret this word – “tight”? – Let alone decide what to do about it? They too may have the idea that there is some problem with the body’s fabric and that the fabric needs to be mechanically manipulated like silly putty, bread dough, or rubber to try and change its consistency – it’s slackness. They will try to unfix, unfasten, or loosen something. Body material names like fascia, connective tissue, muscle knots, and sheaths start getting thrown around and blamed as perpetrators of the dreaded tightness.

If you see a massage therapist maybe they rub the location where the sensation is reported in order to loosen it.

If you see a trainer maybe they stretch the area where the location is reported in order to unfasten it.

If you see a doctor maybe they inject something into the area where the location is reported in order to melt it.

Without trying to sound flippant – the human body is not made from silly putty, clay, bread dough, or rubber. It is a living system constituted by an integrated network of living cells that express into a wide variety of tissues and have strategic ways of adhering to each other. As a living system it has an interesting self-regulatory capability called homeostasis. Homeostasis is a governing process that generally works to keep the body the same in many different areas. The body resists change. It tends to want to maintain its shape, volume, height, and density. It’s why when you see someone that you haven’t seen for many years, they still pretty much look the same! Because of the body’s resistance to change, this desire to remain the same, changing the body in any significant way in short periods of time requires a large, and often damaging amount of energy and resources. Most significant changes occur with a long commitment of regular effort – like exercise – for the body to progressively change its material configuration in one direction or another. Of course, a surgeon can use a scalpel to cut the body to move or remove tissues, or implant foreign objects, in order to change it significantly in some way.

Living tissue has the unique properties of self-regulation, self-organization, and healing. It can remodel in accordance with the forces acting on the tissues. This is the whole point of progressive and consistent exercise. However, many of the tissues, like fascia, tendons, ligaments, bone (which we refer to as passive tissues since they cannot change their material lengths and properties within themselves very easily) do not change in any appreciable way in a few minutes of applied stress. In fact, many of these tissues should not be lengthened and loosened due to their role in maintaining structural integrity and protecting the body from damage (ligaments, tendons).  Unlike passive tissues, muscle tissue has the unique ability to change its length based on the instructions of the nervous system. Most bodily tissues require days and weeks to see and feel detectable changes in their lengths. Muscle can change its length in microseconds.

So, what’s the point here?

When someone reports feeling tight when they move it’s probably not the passive tissues. Rubbing your body like it’s made of silly putty, play

dough, or some kind of soft rubber rarely can do anything to physically alter the cellular material in an appreciable way over the short period of time that the rubbing occurs. Even though it may feel good to rub the area, nothing is fundamentally, or permanently, changing the material’s structure.  However, there is something in the body that does change fast when you manipulate the tissues – and that is the nervous system and its potential effect on influencing muscle length. The electrical impulses that move back and forth in the body can move really fast to tell you various things about motion, position, temperature, pressure, etc. Especially the electrical signals that tell you about what’s happening in your skin and muscles.

You see tightness is a word chosen by an individual to describe a physical sensation, that is a conclusion of the brain, given the information it is receiving and processing from the whole body in a given context.

The hypothesis being floated in this article is that when you experience a bodily sensation and choose the word “tightness” to describe it, the reason could be that the body’s “movement control” over muscle tissue has changed in some way as to affect its ability to lengthen, shorten, and/or maintain a position. This can be detected by your nervous system and information is created such that you have a new sensation that is interpreted as a lengthening problem. It may have nothing to do with the passive fabrics of the body e.g. fascia, connective tissue, adhesions, etc.

See Part 2 for more info on this idea.